The Word Guy / Knowledge

A Little Slice of Heaven

Q. I've heard that the phrase "pie in the sky" was coined by the radical labor leader Joe Hill. Is that true? -- Carl Faith via email

A. That's not a "pie in the sky" folk tale. It IS true!

Joe Hill, a member of the radical union Industrial ...

Getting Possessive About Nouns

Q. I recently told a fellow Steinway Society board member that no apostrophe is needed in "winners recital" (a concert featuring several pianists) any more than one is needed in "teachers union." What we have here is a noun modifying another ...

'If Not' Poses Knotty Questions

In crafting a college recommendation for a student recently, I unintentionally sailed into the murky mist of ambiguity by writing: "She is very bright, if not brilliant."

Hmm... Does this mean she's very bright but not brilliant, or very bright...

If the 'T' Fits, Wear It

Q. Why do we say something "fits to a T"? -- Al Cohen, Newington, Conn.

A. Well, this idiom definitely doesn't come from "fits to a T-shirt," because every T-shirt I've worn lately is either too baggy or too tight. A large T-shirt makes me look...

English Goes on a Toot!

See whether you can spot the errors in these excerpts from newspapers and magazines:

1. "Every student ... started out under Weene's tootiledge?" Was he a trumpet teacher? (submitted by Paul Burton, Staten Island, N.Y.)

2. (From a restaurant ...

Stop Taking Verbal 'Self'ies!

As my friends know, I'm a mild-mannered and easy-going man. (Well... OK, there was that one time when the guy stole my parking space.)

So when it comes to grammar and usage, I often tolerate errors that more doctrinaire word experts would ...